Getting our house in order

March 26, 2013
 by Paul McGowan

One correction I’d like to make about my statement you should make sure your main speakers are flat to 40Hz – I should have said are -3dB at 40Hz and I would extend that as high as 60Hz (the -3dB point). There are very few speakers that don’t go down this low, so you should be ok. It’s just that subwoofers shouldn’t go too high and you should never use a subwoofer to “help” the main speakers do their job. I know there’s a big push to roll off the bottom of the main speaker in home theater applications and let the sub take over – but trust me, if that’s what you need, a new speaker is a better choice.

So I am going to assume that you’ve made the decision to go forward with getting and installing a subwoofer in your system. You either have one already and just want a few tips on setup or you’re starting fresh; perhaps resurrecting one out the closet. Whatever the case may be, let’s roll our sleeves up and get started.

The first thing I want to suggest is the use of stereo subwoofers; one on the left and one on the right. You can use a mono sub but I would urge you to consider going stereo.

Secondly, I am going to assume your loudspeakers are placed into the room and away from the rear wall, perhaps as much as a third the way in (if you’re lucky enough to have that kind of space). I am also going to assume your main loudspeakers have been tweaked and setup for best imaging and performance at your listening chair. It’s going to be important that you get the main speakers right before you start adding a subwoofer because you’ll do nothing more than further the confusion of sound in your room if this isn’t the case.

So let’s get a quick refresher on how to setup our main loudspeakers and make darn sure these are doing what we want first – the last thing you need is to add too many variables into the equation of subwoofer setup – it’ll cause nothing but a bad experience if this critical step isn’t right.

The soundstage your system creates, on a simple well recorded piece, should be behind the main speakers – not in the speakers and certainly not in front of the loudspeaker. The sound should be completely detached from the actual speakers themselves and appear to float in the space behind the speakers.

I would recommend we all start with the same recording or from a known engineer that gets how to do this. Any Reference Recording will get this right, most of the Blue Coast recordings do as well and pretty much anything from Harmonia Mundi will too. There’s certainly plenty of great acoustic recordings, but I recommend you get something you can rely upon for this test. I am going to recommend those of you that are serious with this mission get the same starting point I will be using to help us through this.

Go to Amazon through this link and purchase Tutti. This is a classic Reference recording that’s easily obtained and available for $8 on Amazon or the SACD version is available on Music Direct for $22. HD Tracks also has it and if you prefer, just download track 14 for $1.50 here.However you obtain it, play track 14 at a live level, remembering that Keith Johnson records everything 6dB down from “normal” CD’s so don’t be surprised if you have to turn the level up. On the PWD directly into the power amp, I use 80 on the volume.

Track 14 should appear completely from behind the loudspeakers and no individual instrument should come directly from the speaker itself. The depth of the soundstage will vary from system to system and room to room but in my setup the main orchestra appears about 20 feet behind the main loudspeakers for the farthest instrument from the microphones and the closest perhaps a couple of feet behind the speakers. No individual instrument should ever jump out or be predominant – this is a very even well balanced recording. If your system gives you that same space you’re ready to add a subwoofer. If not, here are a few tips:

  • If the soundstage is in front of the speakers, you need to pull the speakers out into the room and give the soundstage a place to exist in the room. If you are space constrained you can also achieve this by adding diffusors, Tube Traps etc. behind the speakers and at the point of first reflection.
  • If the soundstage is coming from the speakers themselves, refer to the first point or try a little less toe in – point them forward more making sure you still have a coherent center image. Sometimes less toe in can reduce the center image palpability but if you bring the two speakers closer together slightly you get better midbass coupling and a firmer center image.
  • If the soundstage is indeed behind the loudspeaker but you’re getting instruments that jump out or perhaps not enough depth, other than pulling them away from the rear wall you can also try tilting them back just a little (use a CD case under the front of the speaker) so they aren’t beaming so much.

Don’t worry too much about tonality right now. If you can manage to move things around and tweak until this track is near perfect, nothing jumping out and you can “see” the musicians in a stable well balanced presentation behind the loudspeaker, you’re almost guaranteed that tonally you’re in pretty good shape.

If you need more help, you might find it instructive to read the series I wrote on speaker setup some months ago. You can read that entire series by going hereor click on the individual links I provided for spot help.

Let’s get ‘er dialed in and then we can start woofing.

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

7 comments on “Getting our house in order”

  1. Good start to getting this stuff in order. For anyone interested in some real detail work on Subs/placement, also check out Red Spade audio. Very good introduction and an excellent explanation of how to use REW. Paul, I believe it was a post of yours a couple of years ago that recommended servo subs [if not, my apologies]. In any case, your or someone’s post recommended servos, and I ended up having a stereo pair of servo subs built from Rhythmik components in custom cabinets. Huge difference in my system.

    FWIW, Amazon also carries the Tutti SACD, and it’s $7 less than MD.

  2. Since you haven’t quite delved into a detailed sub-woofer discussion yet, I want to comment on general setup for sound-staging. When I sit in the “sweet spot” I hear all the attributes that you mentioned and that we audiophiles strive to attain. When I move to either side of the sweet spot, however, I begin to loose the sound-stage and I begin to hear the speaker. I assume this is common? I assume that when sitting in line with either speaker, you will hear that speaker and lose the sound-stage? Correct me if I’m wrong; maybe your setup provides the depth, imaging and general sound-stage regardless of your seating position.

    I was thinking about this and I wonder if sound-staging is (all) about the room and positioning of the equipment and (not) the quality of the equipment itself (i.e.: I wonder if you could get the same excellent sound-staging with an inexpensive receiver and Best Buy speakers)? That would mean the real money is spent on other aspects of musical reproduction (e.g.: tone, timber, information retrieval, frequency range, PRAT, etc…).

    1. Unfortunately you are correct. In my setup the sweet spot is where you hear all this – move one chair over to the left or the right and there’s still a decent image but not like the sweet spot. This is an artifact of stereo itself and something I have tried to figure out how to eliminate for years – I actually think I know how to do it, but that’s another story.

      No, what you’re hearing is right.

  3. Thanks for your response Paul.

    It’s definitely a “personal” hobby. Sometimes when I’m listening, I think it would be nice to share the moment with a friend – someone you know who would be really appreciative and thoroughly impressed. Then, I think, “nah, I’d have to give up the sweet spot!”

    1. I’ve been reminded that it isn’t always the same for each speaker or setup – and the sweet spot will vary from speaker type to speaker type – narrow dispersion speakers having the smallest sweet spot and wide dispersion speakers a much bigger one.

  4. Hi Paul-
    Thanks for the update on 40Hz on the main speakers. Now my ProAc speakers donot have to be replaced!
    Your setup procedures for these speakers is clear and easy to understand and follow. Made a printout and plan to start this weekend. Harmonia Mundi is an interesting company and I have a good collection of their CD’s but never realized why I was drawn to their sound.
    Many thanks, I look forward to your next article on subwoofer setup.

    1. Yes, most of their recordings are done properly with the microphones a good bit back from the music so there’s a sense of the hall and space they’re recorded in. That’s really what you’re looking for.

      Cookie Marenco from Blue Coast also gets this concept and so most of her recordings are properly recorded in space as well.

Leave a Reply

© 2022 PS Audio, Inc.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram